Pinellas sheriff seeks nearly $5 million in state funding for pursuit course

The number of pursuits taken by Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office deputies has dropped in recent years after a policy change.
Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri announced Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021.
Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri announced Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Dec. 6, 2021|Updated Dec. 6, 2021

Fewer than 10 times a year since 2016, a Pinellas County Sheriff’s deputy has made the split-second decision to pursue a driver fleeing capture.

The number of pursuits dropped dramatically after a policy change in 2013 when Sheriff Bob Gualtieri moved to only allow a chase if the driver has committed a forcible felony, such as murder, kidnapping, aggravated assault and other violent crimes.

Despite the infrequency of pursuits in the department over the past few years — compared to 2012, when there were 134 pursuits — Gualtieri is seeking state funds to build a training course to hone those driving skills.

“Even though we have reduced the number of pursuits considerably, when you do it, you need to do it right and you need to do it in a way that is safe as possible,” Gualtieri said.

Related: Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri is now the star cop in Florida politics. Who is he, and how did he get there?

The nonrecurring request, submitted by Rep. Linda Chaney, R-St. Pete Beach, asks the state to dedicate $4,885,000 to build a pursuit course, which Gualtieri said also would be available for use to other law enforcement agencies in Pinellas. Chaney did not respond to multiple calls, texts and an email asking for comment.

In the past few years, sheriff’s deputies have been training at a dirt lot that the Pinellas School Board has allowed them to use. Sometimes they use empty space by Derby Lane or have borrowed the Showtime Speedway for training.

The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office and Tampa Police Department have training courses. In Hillsborough, there are two driving courses. The agency has an open area driving pad and “Tactical City,” which stretches over a half-mile and mimics traffic signals and residential buildings, said spokesperson Amanda Granit. The open course was built in 2003, and the mock city has existed since 2011.

Gualtieri said the other agency’s courses are at capacity tending to departments in their area. For a county as big as Pinellas and one with 11 law enforcement agencies, he said it’s a need.

“Really quite honestly, in the last several years we have not done much at all with pursuit driver training, because we don’t have a course, we don’t have a facility, which is a void,” he said.

The sheriff said if the state doesn’t fund the course, he’s considering looking at local funding. He said it’s still early to tell where it may be built, but he’s considering a few locations, including the dirt lot they already use, some land off of Gandy Boulevard or property owned by the county.

Gualtieri said that, along with pursuit driving training, the course could be used to train in other defensive driving scenarios and methods to stop cars. He hopes the course will help reduce the overall number of crashes, even outside of pursuits. The budget request specifies the course could also be used for the Teen Driving Challenge and other training programs for residents.

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In 2020, the agency had eight pursuits; the year prior, five; the year before that, seven. In 2010, a decade before, the agency had 77 pursuits, and the number went up until 2013 when Gualtieri changed the policy.

The change meant deputies could no longer go after a stolen car just because it was stolen and couldn’t pursue drivers suspected of burglary if unarmed, or other crimes committed without a weapon, like aggravated assault.

Deputies can begin a pursuit if a person’s dangerous driving is at an extreme level that could cause harm to others.

“The imminent danger to any person must be greater than the danger to the public created by the pursuit if the subject were to remain at large,” the policy reads.

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